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At SFO, the Big Room Produces Big Results

Rob Friend

Team collaboration is a challenge for any project — and the larger the project, the bigger the challenge. San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 1 renovation is a truly huge project. At 1,100,000 sf and $2.4 billion in construction costs, it involves more than 20 design firms and will be phased over nine years. It’s so complex, in fact, that it’s been divided into two separate projects: the expansion of Terminal 1 and the renovation of Boarding Area B.

TEECOM is providing design services on both teams. Our scope includes the network infrastructure that supports airport operations, security, life safety, voice, and other systems. This means that we’re coordinating design and documentation with hundreds of people day in and day out, often crossing over from team to team. How do we keep it all straight?

The answer is a blend of tools and process, but one important piece of the puzzle is the Big Room. Literally a “big room” built free-standing inside a vacant airport hangar on the San Francisco Airport campus, this 30,000-square-foot open office space has become a temporary home to employees from the eight architectural firms, six general contractors, three construction management firms, and innumerable subcontractors working on the Terminal 1 and Boarding Area B projects.

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With 196 workstations, plus its own cafe area, meeting rooms, meditation rooms, and HVAC system, the Big Room functions as a co-working space for people from various design disciplines, as John King describes in this recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle. This kind of co-location not only enhances the speed of communication, but it allows separate teams to gel into one. As team members meet serendipitously, go out to lunch, and talk about each other’s interests, they form a sense that they’re working toward a common goal. And people working toward a common goal are much more motivated to find solutions to problems than faceless strangers.

All of the design work for the Terminal 1 projects is being done in Revit, a 3D modeling system. Dozens of firms are working on the Revit model simultaneously, designing systems that have the potential to affect one another with the click of a button. While software like Revit has a remarkable potential to speed up the design process, it still requires participants to communicate in person occasionally. Technology is no replacement for face-to-face conversation. The Big Room is an open office environment, which allows for impromptu collaboration. Team members can also meet at a central “work lounge” or in enclosed conference rooms.

Design Technology in the Big Room

One example of collaborative teamwork is the design challenge involved in Terminal 1’s planned variation in ceiling height. This design element gives a feeling of openness and helps shape the enormous space. At the same time, every telecom cable needed to be enclosed in a conduit for security purposes. Integrating these conduits with the ceiling height variations through the medium of design drawings proved to be difficult.

TEECOM saw an opportunity to use the three-dimensional Revit model that the entire team collaborates on to produce a virtual reality walk-through of the space so that designers could see exactly how conduits, signage, security cameras, and other elements could be best incorporated into the varied-height ceiling. The virtual reality model provides a focus for team conversations about sight lines, location of telecom rooms and equipment, signage placement, and other elements. Communication and coordination has been greatly enhanced by the team’s ability to review the virtual model together in the Big Room.

The Future of Travel

One of SFO’s primary goals with the Terminal 1 and Boarding Area B redesign is to be able to serve the modern traveler’s need for connection. SFO envisions an app that will allow smart device users to find places to eat and shop and will alert them to changes in their flight. The app will be driven by Wi-Fi nodes that enable location-based information to be directly delivered to travelers. When completed, SFO’s Terminal 1 and Boarding Area B will represent the future of travel, with technology at the forefront. And it all began in the Big Room.

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Rob Friend
Rob Friend, Senior Design Engineer

As lead Project Manager and Senior Design Engineer on some of TEECOM's most complex projects, Rob brings a remarkable blend of people skills and technical skills to his work. He is both big-picture and detail oriented in his quest to provide the most enjoyable experience for users of technology in the built environment.